I sat in the car, wringing my hands. When my mother in law mentioned that she was coming to do this, I had jumped at it, thinking of it as an opportunity to do something for someone else, thinking of it as an opportunity to earn good deeds. Now however, those thoughts stood in a fog of nervous wariness. I had never washed a dead body before, and wasn’t sure what to expect. I looked over at Mumy. Her face wasn’t wrought with nervousness. She drove calmly, having done this quite a few times. Anytime there was someone who didn’t have anyone to do it for them, she would go. One of her friends headed a group of sisters, notifying everyone on the team when people were needed.
Walking towards the ghusl facility next to the masjid, we saw a single man sitting on the front step of the otherwise deserted porch. As we got closer, I realized his broad, strong shoulders were shaking. He was sobbing. I felt a pang in my chest, seeing someone so strong feeling so broken. He seemed utterly alone.
The sun was shining and the roses outside of the small brown brick building were in full bloom, but I didn’t feel the warmth of the sunshine. It felt strange to be here on such a seemingly beautiful day. This seemed like a sad and cloudy situation. This young man was the only person his mother had in this world. There were no relatives, no close friends to be here for this. To wash and take care of her body before she went into the ground.
I had never seen a building specially made for these services. Inside, past the small seating area with shelves full of Qurans and dua books, there were a set of double doors. We walked through to the other side. It was cold, a sharp contrast from the warm sunlight outside. Four more women joined and greeted us. The air felt heavy with emotion and another feeling I couldn’t quite identify yet. This room was large, the tiled floor slightly sloping into a drain at the lowest point. We pulled on faded blue aprons over our clothes, surgical masks over our faces, gloves over our hands. The cold metal grey wall on our right-hand side, I realized, was not a wall at all. There were small rectangular doors built into it. We clicked the latch open on the middle door and pulled the drawer out carefully. We looked at each other over the white bundle, understanding the weight of the responsibility we had towards it, and beside me Mumy squeezed my hand. My nerves settled slightly and I felt a sense of determination. We may not have known the woman inside these sheets, but here we was her family, her closest comrades.
I felt a silent bond with the women standing around me. They welcomed me, the head aunty, Sarah, assuring me that they would help me learn as we went.
Everyone moved to lift her onto the table, following Sarah aunty’s instructions. As they worked to transition her from one table to the other, I watched them in awe. I realized these ladies were unsung heroes, a rescue squad of sorts. Stepping in as silent saviors when there was someone who needed them. They dropped whatever they were doing to come here and do this, for people they never knew. I felt closer to Mumy, felt our bond strengthen by being able to do this together. I felt a sense of honor, being able to join them, having the opportunity to be here and be a part of this.
I was asked to help move and clean her head and shoulders. I thought about how helpless she seemed, the state she was in. She had no choice but to completely trust us, women who were strangers to her, to take care of her. I felt a strange responsibility to make sure she was comfortable, to make sure we were gentle, to make sure she felt cared for. I set her head down softly, moving some hair out of her face. Her skin was freezing, her hair was damp. I thought about how small an action this was, how one day I would be lying here, unable to do something as insignificant as brushing hair out of my eyes. How I would have to trust someone else to do this for me.
They gave me a cotton ball and I dipped it into soap and warm water. I cleaned around her eyes, her forehead, her cheeks, her nose, her lips, her chin. I gently lathered shampoo into her thin grey hair, and poured warm water over it afterwards. I realized I was trying not to get it into her eyes.
We took her through the steps of wudu. I held her hands and someone else continued on, until we finished with her feet. We put kafoor (camphor) on the places of her body that touched the ground when she made sujood: her hands, her knees, her toes, her forehead, her nose. After we finished, we prepared the clean white sheets to wrap her in. We laid them out on a new, clean table and gently together lifted her onto them. We wrapped them around her and tied it with strips of white cloth to keep it secure. We left her head for last, slowly wrapping the cloth around her head. She looked almost as if she was sleeping.
After lifting her into a box, we made dua for her together. Looking to me, they handed me the sheet of paper, wanting me to read the dua out loud, thinking I could best read it, but who was I to read this for her? This was my first time here…these women had done this many times before me. I felt unworthy of doing something so special and sacred. I took the paper tentatively, feeling a quiet sense of duty and determination to do my best for this woman.
اللهُـمِّ اغْفِـرْ لَهَا وَارْحَمْـها ، وَعافِهِا وَاعْفُ عَنْـها ، وَأَكْـرِمْ نُزُلَـها ، وَوَسِّـعْ مُدْخَـلَها ، وَاغْسِلْـها بِالْمـاءِ وَالثَّـلْجِ وَالْبَـرَدْ ، وَنَقِّـها مِنَ الْخطـايا كَما نَـقّيْتَ الـثَّوْبُ الأَبْيَـضُ مِنَ الدَّنَـسْ ، وَأَبْـدِلْها داراً خَـيْراً مِنْ دارِها ، وَأَهْلاً خَـيْراً مِنْ أَهْلِـها ، وَزَوْجَـاً خَـيْراً مِنْ زَوْجِها، وَأَدْخِـلْها الْجَـنَّة ، وَأَعِـذْها مِنْ عَذابِ القَـبْر وَعَذابِ النّـار
Oh Allah, forgive her and have mercy on her and give her strength and pardon her. Be generous to her and cause her entrance to be wide and wash her with water and snow and hail. Cleanse her of her transgressions as white cloth is cleansed of stains. Give her an abode better than her home, and a family better than her family, and a spouse better than her spouse. Take her into Paradise and protect her from the punishment of the grave and from the punishment of Hell-fire.
Walking out afterwards, I felt peaceful. Mumy gave me a squeeze and headed over to look at the roses, wanting blooms like that in her garden. I sat on the bench on the front porch, exploring my thoughts while waiting for her.
I heard a voice and looked up slightly. I saw the woman’s son was no longer alone. He was speaking to another man in front of the masjid. His eyes were red and wet, but his mouth was smiling slightly, thinking of his mother’s last moments and her feelings of hope, accepting the comfort he received from someone who he had never known, but who was his brother.
“She wasn’t sad. She was happy returning to her Allah…there was no one else who had always been there for her.”
At the time, I smiled, but it was later on that I realized the significance of these events, the significance of the rescue squad entirely. I was driving my car, thinking back on this experience. What had seemed like a sad and heartbreaking situation at the time didn’t quite seem that way anymore. The woman we took care of that day didn’t have any relatives or any close friends, but still she had a family, sisters to take care of her before the beginning of her new journey. It was a Friday. She would have many people at her funeral, praying for her, wishing her the best, crying for the person they may have never known, but who they all considered family. Her son, who would have been left alone in the world, would have comfort all around him. He would have a community of people to look to and lean on, should he need to. Simply because of Allah, simply because of this belief that bonded us together, they weren’t really alone. They were a part of something much bigger than themselves. It’s comforting to think that each of us will have that inshaAllah, regardless of the situation surrounding us when we pass away. It’s comforting to think that our Allah has set up Islam in such a way that we are always looked out for and taken care of, even when we aren’t here anymore.
Since then I have gone with Mumy and the rescue squad a couple more times, each time feeling the significance of the event and learning new lessons. Feeling the gravity of being with these women during their last moments here in this world, helping to prepare them for the biggest journey they would ever experience, the goal they spent their lives working towards. However, no matter how many times I go, I will never forget that first time. The experience that brought me closer to Mumy in a way I could never have imagined, and made me realize how amazing it is that we have been blessed with a family we never even asked for.
The weather and beauty of that day suddenly seemed very fitting. I smiled.